Iowa caucuses
From left, Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, former President Donald Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley make their cases at rallies across Iowa. (Gaylord News)

(Update: Former President Donald Trump won the Republican Iowa caucuses on Monday, Jan. 15, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley finishing third. The following article remains in its original form.)

DES MOINES, Iowa — Every four years, Iowa becomes the epicenter of American politics and sets the stage for the presidential election as the first stop in the primary race.

The caucus is a complex voting system that involves meetings across Iowa’s 99 counties. However, the caucus is not a primary and does not look like one. It involves discussions and negotiations among voters, similar to New England town hall meetings, to choose who they want to be their party’s nominee.

Tonight, registered Republicans will gather in typical voting places such as schools, churches or public libraries to elect precinct captains and hear last-minute pitches from candidate representatives. After those speeches, caucus attendees will receive their secret ballots and cast their votes.

This year’s GOP ballot will include former President Donald Trump, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and pastor Ryan Binkley. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie dropped out of the race recently but will still appear on the ballot.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

Caucus choices of Iowa Democrats are made slightly differently and will be disclosed on Super Tuesday in March.

However, in 2020 the legitimacy of Iowa’s caucus system faced criticism when technical issues and reporting inconsistencies plagued Democrats. Political journalist, writer and Iowa native David Yepsen explained that the introduction of a new app curated for reporting results led to delays and confusion, causing a lack of transparency and confidence in the results.

“They had a system crash, the app was new and untested (…) that caused the collapse of the process and ultimately the last straw for a lot of national Democrats,” Yepsen said.

National Democrats had long complained that Iowa’s demographics, overwhelmingly white and rural, did not provide a good test for a first-in-the-nation vote.

Census data from 2022 reveals nearly 90 percent of Iowa is white, while approximately 75 percent of the United States identifies as white. The significant lack of racial diversity in Iowa has raised questions about the caucus’ ability to reflect America.

“In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, you had a healthy two-party system here — which is no longer true. Because of the demographic changes, now there is a question of whether or not this is a good place to have this test,” Yepsen said.

However, Iowa Republican state Sen. Jeff Taylor, a political science professor at Dordt University, said the Hawkeye State fits for his party.

“From a Republican point of view, I think Iowa is a good state to have very early on,” he said.

Taylor said Iowa is the best place to have the caucus because of its central location.

“So here you’ve got the Midwest voice, more of an agricultural voice, and you’ve got a lot of small towns,” said Taylor.

Iowa results can help shape outcome of presidential primaries

In the past, Iowa’s results have changed the political direction of the country. In 2008, the outcome of the Iowa caucus supported the movement to elect Barack Obama.

Similarly, former President Jimmy Carter’s path to the presidency was paved through Iowa, as explained by political analyst Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University.

“Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia (…) and when he left office in January of 1975, he came to Iowa and basically camped out for 14 months. And he’d stay in the homes of supporters. He stayed in inexpensive motels. He’d go to corner cafes and coffee shops,” said Goldford.

Taylor agreed that the caucus format emphasizes grassroots campaigning.

“Underdog candidates can make a splash in Iowa, and then that can really set them up for greater success down the road,” Taylor said.

Taylor compared the underdog races of Carter and Obama to Ramaswamy’s current campaign.

“Vivek Ramaswamy (…) wasn’t well known until he started campaigning in Iowa, and he is just crisscrossing the state constantly,” he said. “Even though he’s been in fourth place in the polls, my guess is that he is probably going to exceed expectations and probably get enough attention to last for a while in the primary season.”

Iowa does have the potential to set candidates on the political map in America. However, while the caucus has reflected how the rest of the presidential race went in the past, it has also failed to predict nominees many times. Goldford explained that, in the modern caucus era, only three prevailing candidates have gone on to win presidencies.

“Jimmy Carter in 1976, then not again until George W. Bush in 2000, and then again in 2008 with Barack Obama. So only three times has the winner of a competitive caucus gone on to win the presidency,” said Goldford.

However, with this specific election in 2024, Iowa’s urban and rural divide could give American voters an idea of where the Republican Party stands.

“[The caucus] reflects the challenges and divisions within the Republican Party, but Trump is so far ahead in this,” Yepsen said. “He is expected to do well, and it will be a surprise if he doesn’t.”

‘The three most important factors are turnout, turnout and turnout’

Although all candidates are campaigning across the state, Trump’s expected domination has caused Americans’ eyes to focus on which Republican finishes second.

“If the results are weak for Trump or if Haley comes in second, then it could have an influence,” said Yepsen.

According to recent polls done by the Des Moines Register, Trump is expected to capture about half of the caucus votes.

However, Goldford explained that any candidate in any party’s biggest opponent is expectations.

“The central question is: Did you do better than expected or worse than expected? And what the caucuses can do is reveal unexpected strengths and unexpected weaknesses. So for Mr. Trump, for example, right now he’s been polling at such historically sky-high numbers, but I think at this point, he’s less worried about Haley or Desantis than he is worried about meeting those sky-high expectations,” said Goldford.

However, owing to severe winter storms and blizzard warnings across the state since last Tuesday, Republican candidates have canceled dozens of their events. According to the National Weather Service, the predicted low for Monday night is -17 degrees, which Goldford believes will impact voter turnout.

“Real estate people will tell you the most three important factors in real estate are location, location and location,” said Goldford. “Well, in electoral politics, the three most important factors are turnout, turnout and turnout. And for turnout, the three most important factors are organization, organization and organization.”

Shifting to a traditional presidential primary would make the caucus more accessible, he said.

“Iowa is not first because it is important, it is important because it is first,” Goldford said.